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One Kilometer, Sixty-seven Years

SCAD Creative Fiction Writing II

Light pollution from the distant cities to the south dissolved into the night sky, silhouetting the trucks on top of the hill with its orange glow. We were on the riverbank, looking out over the water to the other side. The headlights from the trucks and our electric lanterns couldn’t reach the northern bank, for it was too far and we were afraid to get any closer.

I zipped up my utility coat and fastened the hood in place. A dozen of us college guys congregated near the trucks. Off to the side, one of the older men took out a pair of binoculars and scanned the horizon. Compared to everyone else out here, he was pretty short. His hands shook, whether from the cold or something else, I don’t know.

He stood there for quite some time before telling us we could start what we were here for. Inside the trucks were giant tanks of hydrogen, cases of deflated balloons, and stacks of bulging plastic bags. We took the bags out first, lining them up beside the trucks. Each was stuffed with propaganda leaflets, envelopes of United States currency, and bundles of 1000 won notes. The leaflets were for education, the money for bribes.

A woman with gloved hands gave me a roll of duct tape and zip ties. I was in charge of attaching the plastic bags to the balloons. Someone told us to stop smoking because the hydrogen tanks were coming out. At the tanks, I attached the bags to the balloons as they inflated, careful not to get too close to the gas nozzle. 

I watched Binocular Man. He was a defector, someone told me on the drive over. How he got out was vague. A group of men tried to run from a prison camp all the way to the border. Out of all of them, only Binocular Man made it to South Korea, they said. And here he was now, standing just a river’s-width away from his terrible home country.

He observed the operation quietly, only interjecting when he felt someone wasn’t being careful enough or the talking got too loud. His face was set in a perpetual frown, but when he spoke, his voice was warm.

We stood in a line and held onto the balloons as a few guys tied large banners to them. Soon a vandalized picture of Kim Jong-Un flapped in the wind. Underneath his scowling face read “FREE THE NORTH KOREAN PEOPLE” in Hangul.

Binocular Man stared at the dictator’s image for a moment. I wondered what he thought about all this, whether he really thought what we were doing was enough. Would some balloons really change an entire country? He had to believe it, I decided, or he wouldn’t be out here with the rest of us.

We let go. The balloons took off, rising with the wind. They drifted over the river like dandelion seeds before they were swallowed by the night.

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